Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

May 1, 2007

Stalin’s bunker to become a museum

Filed under: Communist kitsch, Eastern Europe, Museums, Stalin, USSR — amyjaneb @ 9:28 pm

Found this via a Museum Studies email list.  Two things:

i)  the entertainment centre – strange juxtaposition.  Does it mean that Moscovites have genuinely ‘moved on, and consigned Stalin to the historical ‘dustbin’?  Or is this just another manifestation of commie kitsch or ostalgie (as it would be called in Germany)?

ii)  Moscow’s chief ‘digger”s comment

“The best solution would be to restore these facilities in their original shape and connect them by a common transportation system, and use them as a wonderful museum complex that would continue performing its strategic functions,” [by italics]

Isn’t that notion just a little bit bizarre? What ‘strategic functions’ could Stalin’s ex-bunker possibly perform in 2007? Especially if it was abandoned in the 80s. Nostalgia for the old regime, or future insight? Perhaps the real meaning is ‘lost in translation’.

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April 15, 2007

Revolution is Not a Garden Party

I’ve been bad.  Rather than finishing the books I’ve already got on the go, I’ve done a ‘Stasiland’and picked up something else instead.  However, I have a good excuse.  A family bereavement just before Easter has left me feeling fairly ‘numb’. But I’m not going to beat myself up about abandoning schedules and reading plans .  I’m just going to read/write whatever appeals for however long it takes.  At least that way I’ll continue to make progress, if a little haphazardly.

Anyway, back to the publication in question: Revolution is Not a Garden Party – the catalogue produced to accompany the exhibition of the same name currently on display at the Norwich Gallery (which I missed the chance – through no fault of my own – to see.  I’m still seething!).

Taking Mao’s famous quote and applying it to the legacy of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, the organisers have gathered together a collection of contemporary (Eurocentric) works and installations that consider ‘the resonances of social and political revolution’.  So, while there’s little (despite the title) tieing the exhibition to China, the essays and responses to the works compiled in the catalogue have provided me with a few ideas and pointers for my own research and a list of theorists to investigate; Deleuze, Levinas and Guattari.

One particular installation which caught my eye (though – of course – I’ve only seen it on paper and on the Internet, dammit!) is Sanja Ivekovic’s ‘Figure and Ground’ and the response to it written by Dora Hegyi.

Revolution is Not a Garden Party Flyer (see second page of the pdf for excerpt)

Ivekovic has taken a series of fashion shots produced for the Face in 2001 and juxtaposed them with photo-journalist images of terrorists published in Der Speigel in the same year.  The models are clothed in a ‘terrorist look’ without consideration of the ideological meaning behind the reality.  Hegyi argues that through these images (which are, despite the connotations, really quite beautiful – I’m totally inspired by the slash of red eye shadow sported by the model featured in the exhibition flyer) consumers are encouraged to identify with the terrorist as ‘hero’.  In my opinion the associations are little more fuzzy and less fixed than that.  I doubt these visual references were used in as considered a manner as that.  Surely the representations employed by the stylist and photographer have more to do with an enduring image of rebellion, the outsider, the individual rallying against the norm/society?     I’m immediately put in mind of the Manic Street Preachers’ infamous performance of ‘Faster’ on Top of the Pops. Which is sadly no longer available on YouTube and so I can’t share it here (though it is featured on the DVD which accompanies the 10th anniversary edition of ‘The Holy Bible’).  Anyway, it featured James Dean Bradfield in a balaclava on a stage set inspired by Irish paramilitary stylings, replete with burning torches.  Still – supposedly – the catalyst for the most complaints ever received by the BBC in the shortest period of time. Hurrah for the Manics! 

Hegyi does go on to make the point that in these images, fashion is making a [superficial] connection between freedom and terrorism [without recourse to the ideological baggage of course].  Though, it has to be said, in the case of the Manic Street Preachers, the images they invoked through the appropriation of paramilitary and – indeed – communist iconography in the mid-1990s carried considerably more power and shock-value than they might today.  The overall effect was really quite seditious and menacing at the time; the IRA had not yet announced its ceasefire and the menacing spectre of communism in western imaginings remained fresh, despite the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR.

I appear – as ever – to have gone off on a bit of a tangent…

April 13, 2007

I’m back and ‘Stasiland’: a review

Filed under: Eastern Europe, GDR, Memorials, Museums, Publications, Reading — amyjaneb @ 10:52 pm

I got back to Leicester this afternoon and immediately set to work.  No, not really – my brain is still very much elsewhere.  This is where blogging comes in. I find it a really useful way of getting back in ‘the swing of things’. 

While I was away, I abandoned the other books I’d been reading and settled down with my second-hand copy of Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall, as recommended to me by Mary.  It was great – obviously it’s a personal account/reflection on post-1989 Berlin and the fall of communism, but – as it’s based around a series of personal testimonies recorded by Funder in interviews with Stasi victims and operatives alike – it offers a good introduction to the subject from a ‘human’ perspective.  Funder’s writing style is warm and engaging, and the stories she presents equally moving and disturbing.

I want to single out a few points which correspond with my research.  In particular Funder’s personal reflections on the various museums/memorials related to the Berlin Wall, communist Germany and the Stasi , and their visitors, are richly descriptive and considered, reflecting my thoughts that – to a large extent – the memorialising of locations, such as the Stasi HQ, serve to contain the memories, experiences and power associated with the old regime.  But they also lend an authenticity to the documents and artefacts to the objects housed within them, something which visitors clearly value.   In a particularly illuminating passage Funder contrasts the brand new, but soulness – and, more crucially – sparsely visited (at least in her telling) Contemporary History Forum in Leipzig, with the ‘real deal’, the Runde Ecke (the Stasi HQ in Leipzig). (Incidentally, in her comment on my post about communist relics, Mary picked out a telling passage from this section of the book.)  In addition, there is a suggestion that the museumfication process heralds the death-knell of the ideology of the regime.  Miriam, a correspondent of Funder’s who ‘haunts’ the narrative throughout, expresses great satisfaction at the conversion of the Runde Ecke into a museum.  For her it represents a triumph over the regime (p. 46).  The survival of such sites – though much contested, by various ‘interest groups’ in the former GDR – into post-communist Berlin and Germany are clearly vitally important to several committed ‘activists’,  whom are simply not prepared to allow the unified nation of Germany to forget what happened in the GDR. 

Finally, Funder documents the ostalgie for and tourist kitsch related to the Berlin Wall. She describes hawkers of spurious relics: ‘genuine’ pieces of the wall, communist memorabilia and cheap GDR-themed souvenirs, who continue to peddle their wares despite the increasing ‘sanitisation’ of communist Germany, represented most iconically by the Berlin Wall, of which very little now remains in situ.

Overall, the impression one gets from Funder is of a country – for many residents (or at least those interviewed by Funder) still appear to consider themselves as Other from the ‘Wessis’ – struggling to find the best way of dealing with the legacy of communism and negotiating Kapitalismus.  It’s a great read, which – I’m sure – will continue to resonate with me for some time.

March 7, 2007

Is Communism Good for the Arts?

I love the Internet.  I love trailing little references here and there like bunnies down rabbit holes, and finding great stuff with just a little bit of digging.  This is a real gem.

Is Communism Good for the Arts?  Radio programme on-demand, from WNYC New York Public Radio (5th March 2007)
32 mins

A very useful discussion of the arts and communism, with a focus on traditional and classical music, in the Soviet Union, Cultural Revolution-era China and Fidel’s Cuba.  A quick, fairly off-the-cuff review follows:

On the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, this discussion reflects on seriousness with which communism has taken the arts.  Reminds me of comments made by a curator whom I recently met, who had studied Chinese political history at university in the US; a course which omitted discussion of the arts, despite their central position (as ‘cogs and wheels’) in the ideology of the communist state.  So, it’s encouraging that a serious arts programme thought to treat communism culture as a valid subject for discussion.

The programme began with a focus on classical music under Stalin, with the musicologist Solomon Volkov’s assertion that in the USSR, propaganda art could still be ‘real’ art, at least in the realm of classical music, under Stalin, providing it met the ideological functions of the state and that Stalin personally liked the work.  Otherwise it would be deemed ‘formalist’ and it’s composer shipped off to Siberia.  Volkov felt that under Stalin there were similarities between the cultural sphere of the USSR and the relationship between Renaissance artists and their patrons.  He made the useful assertion that all culture – even today, in capitalist societies, operates as state propaganda to an extent (willingly or otherwise).  This put me in mind of ‘Cool Britannia’ and the explicit links that New Labour made between itself as a ‘social movement’, or a force for change in Britain and the development of the YBAs, Britpop, etc during the mid-90s.  For a time, Britain was sold to the rest of the world through it’s culture, so – yes – to a degree it operated as propaganda for the new government.  Good point from Volkov there.  😉

To an extent, he felt that today in Russia, the propagandist works of composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev, are accepted as great art, despite the political influence on their production.  He feels that sufficient time has passed to consider them objectively as historical documents perhaps.  Up pops that historical time-lag again, which seems to be psychologically necessary for people to deal with the heritage of the recent past.

The discussion then moved to Cultural Revolution-era China.  Bright Sheng, the US-based composer, who himself was sent down to the countryside at the age of 15, but because of his musical talent avoided physical labour, gave a brief overview of the role of Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) in the control of the arts.  He felt that she had an obvious, but – of course – unstated taste for western romantic classical music, which he feels one can detect in the Eight Model Operas, for example.  While everything was sloganised and heavily referenced traditional Chinese opera, he describes the musical output of the CultRev as a ‘strange hybrid’.  This is an interesting point.  Once again it highlights the hypocrisy of the ideologies supposedly behind the CultRev: while ostensibly ridding China of bourgeois, capitalist influence, it was a pretence.  Because the western influence remained.  The same could be said for propaganda posters of the era – while they bear the influence of traditional nianhua prints, they are essentially a continuation of the aesthetic ideas of the woodblock prints of the Lu Xun/’May 4th’-inspired 1920s and 1930s, which was itself rooted in the style and ideologies of European artists like Kathe Kollwitz.

Sheng revealed that while he was restricted in the performances he could make as a pianist, he was able to largely self-direct his learning privately through the works of Chopin and Mozart.  Again, this adds weight to my impresion that the CultRev was, to a large degree, all show.  It was about the superficiality of the performance, rather than the practice (if that makes sense?), the CultRev operated through the control of individual’s outward expression.

Sheng himself has composed two works based on his experiences of the Cultural Revolution, ‘Madame Mao’, an opera and ‘Hun’ (Lacerations), which he described as a ‘musical memoir of the Cultural Revolution’, and his most angry piece he has ever written.  While he had never before believed in catharsis through artistic expression, he says that was, for him,  the ultimate outcome of writing the piece; it helped to get rid of a lot of anger, which he hadn’t previously realised was there.

Volkov and Sheng went on to discuss the role of the arts in communism.  Volkov felt that it had a lot to do with the personality of the leader, i.e. Stalin – as a ‘connoisseur’ of the arts – understood the propaganda potential of culture.  And of course, art and performance played a central role in the earliest pro-communist propaganda campaigns in China.  But culture was also an indicator of strength and power.  The presenter offered a link between culture in Russia and the development of sport in the GDR.  In a similar fashion, Sheng felt that the Eight Model Operas were Jiang Qing’s ‘claim to fame’.  He then went on to make a really crucial point, I believe, that these operas have not been forgotten in China, largely because – in his opinion – for people of his generation they constitute the only culture that they grew up with, so remembering them is largely a ‘nostalgia thing’.  That ties in very well with the paper I referred to the other day in my discussion with Mary about communist relics, which discusses the sensual recollection of socialism facilitated by the Grutas Sculptural Park in Lithuania.

The discussion then moved on to Cuba – which is a slightly different ‘kettle of fish’, so I won’t linger too much on that here.  However, the writer Robin Moore, did offer a (persuasive) argument for why the arts are so important to communist regimes, and why they have to be so closely watched:  Whereas in capitalist society people have financial incentives to go about their daily lives, in socialist societies basic domestic needs, healthcare and education are largely taken care of by the State, so moral incentives are needed instead to keep people ‘on target’.  This means ideas are more highly prioritised in communist states than in capitalist societies.  But it also means that the artistic community has to be more closely monitored.

Finally, the dicussion was brought to close with the guests’ predications for the future.  In China, Sheng felt that the arts were following the US lead – largely commercialised, and pretty free, so long as political themes were avoided.  In 10-20 years,  he could foresee a cultural renaissance happening in China as a result.  However, although communism has poured money into culture, he felt that overall it has been a ‘bad thing’ for the arts in China, because it ‘stopped creativity’.  But, as the presenter said in conclusion, ‘ideas are hard to kill’.

February 23, 2007

The reinvention of relics of communism

Here’s a post about a bizarre relic of the GDR.  Can it really be true?  How can an entire population forget about a whole (albeit small and unpopulated) island?  Is it another example of the, frankly understandable, ‘sweep it under the carpet’ attitude of former communist states in eastern Europe? 

 East Germany Lives On – As A Tiny Carribean Island « strange maps 

The need to replace the symbolism of communism and reconstruct national identity as a feature of post-communist society is a theme taken up by Laura Mulvey in her excellent documentary Disgraced Monuments (1996).   While it certainly is understandable that societies, especially the ex-Soviet states, emerging from the communist era would want to move on and build new futures, there is an argument that the process of destroying statues of Lenin and Stalin, for example, was an act akin to the reconstruction of national histories formerly instigated by the communist state itself.  And yet Western Europeans, myself included, are fascinated by the legacy of communism (at least in its visual, material and iconographic forms), for which a whole tourist industry has developed to cater.  While it would be untrue to state that ‘ostalgia’ (as it is called in Germany) is only consumed by westerners, I’m intrigued by the tension between the impulse of the (fairly) newly democratic nations to abandon the past and look to the future, and the need for the rest of us to continually rake over the past, recycling and endlessly appropriating icons of communist ideology: the Che Guevara t-shirt, the CCCP sweatshirt to name but two examples.  This emasculating and denuding of symbolic power is similar, I think,- like I was discussing in my earlier post about Kim Jong-Il – to how we look upon communism today.  In the post-Berlin Wall era ‘communism’ means little more than ‘retro-chic’.  And by emasculating the power and the threat it once meant by assimilating it’s iconography into our popular culture we are reaffirming to ourselves the triumph of West over East.

This is an interesting theme taken up by James Hevia in an article of his I read earlier today (which I’ve left in the office, and can’t for the life of me remember what it’s called!).  He discusses the looting of the Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860 by British and French troops, the eventual destinations of these objects and the meanings contemporaneously ascribed to them once they reached the colonial centres of London and Paris.  He argues that the identification of several items as having belonged to the Emperor himself not only adds a cache to their provenance and value, but their positioning (virtual or physically) in relation to objects pertaining to the British monarch, came to symbolise the defeat of the Chinese nation.  In my summation, the use of communist iconography in fashionable contexts, is much the same.  Both trophies of war, both (subconsciously perhaps in the case of the latter) symbolising the defeat and humiliation of the contexts of their original loci of production.

Phew – all that philosophising has worn me out.  Had better have a cup of tea to recover.  Oh, and I need to find out about Creative Commons licenses and whatnot.  😉

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